Will early elections end the political crisis?

Will early elections end the political crisis?

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The opposition led by former Prime Minister Imran Khan is continuing to demand early elections. The coalition government comprising nine parties that ousted Khan by a no-confidence vote in April, insists it will stay in office until Parliament completes its full term in August 2023. This has given rise to a debate in the country about whether early elections would resolve the crisis that has ensued from the political gridlock between the government and opposition and end the paralysis of the political system that Khan’s party wants to achieve by its actions.

The impact of PTI’s conduct has been most evident recently in Punjab, the country’s biggest province and political heartland. The party’s ally PML-Q leader and Speaker of the provincial assembly Pervez Elahi refused to preside over a session last week in which the budget was to be presented. Finally, after two days of delay and failed attempts to break the deadlock, the budget was presented at another venue, Aiwan-i-Iqbal after the Governor from the ruling party summoned the session there. Parallel sessions of the provincial legislature reflected the persisting state of confusion in Punjab. The Governor then issued an ordinance to limit the Speaker’s powers and transfer authority to issue notifications to summon and prorogue the assembly to the provincial government’s law department. Whether this action withstands legal scrutiny is yet to be seen.

Political instability is likely to persist in Punjab not least because unlike the federal legislature, from where PTI lawmakers resigned, the party’s provincial legislators have retained membership of the assembly and are likely to continue to create mayhem there. This and the unsettled situation at the national level with Khan threatening more protests to force early elections has raised the question about whether announcing polls will help de-escalate political tensions.

If the PTI leadership refused to accept a parliamentary vote in which it lost its majority; if it questioned a judicial outcome, which revived the national assembly dissolved by the President, what is the guarantee it will accept an election result if it is rejected by voters?

Maleeha Lodhi

In this backdrop there is much public discussion about the pros and cons of early polls with some analysts voicing the hope that this would bring an end to the kind of instability the country is witnessing, especially at a time of economic crisis. Some even see immediate elections as a panacea for the current political turbulence and government-opposition confrontation that is making the political system all but dysfunctional. It can be argued that calling elections would pacify Khan’s PTI and focus its attention on electoral competition rather than efforts to upend the political system. More importantly, elections would settle who has the legitimate right to rule and end the controversy over the propriety of the parliamentary no-confidence vote that ousted Khan’s government – even though the move was legal and constitutional.

But here lies the problem. Khan and his party colleagues have been hurling accusations of partisanship against almost all state institutions suggesting they are not neutral and interfering in the political process to PTI’s detriment. Even the judiciary has faced thinly veiled criticism from Khan. The establishment too has been the subject of criticism with party trolls levelling unseemly allegations on social media. But Khan’s attacks on the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) have the most direct bearing on future polls. He has repeatedly called into question ECP’s impartiality and demanded the chief election commissioner, who holds a constitutional post, should resign, accusing him of being hand in glove with PML-N, which leads the coalition government. Does this mean Khan will not accept the election result if he loses and will instead blame it on the ECP’s so-called partiality? If the PTI leadership refused to accept a parliamentary vote in which it lost its majority; if it questioned a judicial outcome, which revived the national assembly dissolved by the President, what is the guarantee it will accept an election result if it is rejected by voters?

The past is not encouraging on this count. Almost every election outcome has been disputed in Pakistan’s history. In the 2013 polls when Khan’s PTI lost to PML-N he claimed vote rigging and called the general election the “biggest fraud” in the country’s history. He demanded investigation into the alleged ballot fraud, launched protests and held a prolonged sit in for over four months in Islamabad. Eventually a judicial commission was appointed after agreement between the PML-N government and PTI to investigate these allegations. This found no evidence of systematic rigging, only local irregularities, which Khan was forced to reluctantly accept.

In the 2018 elections when Khan emerged victorious, both PML-N and PPP accused his party, aided by the establishment, of widespread ballot rigging. During the 1990’s, PML-N and PPP took turns to accuse each other of winning by fraudulent means. Given this troubled background, will all political contenders accept the outcome of future polls? Will elections, whether early or on schedule, end Pakistan’s political turmoil or trigger another crisis? There are no easy answers to these troubling questions.

- Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha

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